The beast within? Breaching human-animal boundaries in Anglo-Saxon paganism

The beast within? Breaching human-animal boundaries in Anglo-Saxon paganism

By Aleksander Pluskowski

Saxon: The Newsletter of the Sutton Hoo Society, No.45 (2007)

Introduction: Pre-Christian religious belief and practice in early medieval northern Europe has been described as nuanced, multi-scalar and dynamic, with a degree of regional variation and change over time – indeed one could describe early medieval Christianity in a similar way. Within this cultural mosaic it is possible to identify shared or comparable responses to the natural world. Animals feature widely in early Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian culture; both domestic and wild species are recovered in varying proportions from archaeological contexts, they appear in later literature, in personal names, and dominate indigenous art in the latter half of the the first millennium AD.

The use of animals as active, rather than simply metaphorical, mediators between the natural and supernatural worlds in a characteristic of shamanic religious systems. Stephan Glosecki has argued for a shamanic view of early Anglo-Saxon society on the basis of traces of totemism and esctatic techniques found in later Anglo-Saxon literature, whilst Howard Williams has suggested that early Anglo-Saxon society shared an ‘ideology of transformation’ with other groups in the North Sea, expressed through animal use and representation in 5th and 6th century funerary rites. More specifically, Glosecki, Williams and others have argued for an animistic pagan Anglo-Saxon society, where the spiritual was accessible through the natural.

There is very little direct evidence for the actual veneration of animals as deities in England, although the practice is attested in other regions of northern Europe. A letter written by Aldhelm of Sherborne (d.709) mentions shrines which had been converted to Christian uses, where previously ermuli cervulique had been worshipped, perhaps referring to an image of a stag or hybrid stag-deity. Such examples are exceptional. On the other hand, early Anglo-Saxon material culture shares both form and context with the way animals were symbolically deployed by pagan societies in other parts of northern Europe, particularly Scandinavia. In all of these regions, the centrality of zoomorphic ornament, the incorporation of animals into funerary rites, personal display and hints in later literature of their original totemic functions such as their use in personal names, all point to a paradigm where animals played a key role in social and cosmological organisation.

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